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Throughout the season of Advent – which this year encompasses the four weeks leading up to December 25 – we’re looking at classic Christmas movies and how they might connect us to the miracle of God choosing to become a human being.
Things go wrong all the time.
Those six words sum up the essence of the most outrageous holiday movie on our list. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the third in a series of madcap “Vacation” movies starring Chevy Chase as the earnest but hapless Clark Griswold, is essentially a montage of domestic disasters.
Clark doesn’t want much. Just a “fun, old-fashioned family Christmas.” An incurable idealist, he is convinced that “Christmas is about resolving differences and seeing through the petty problems of daily life.”
His long-suffering wife, played by Beverly D’Angelo, clings to a more realistic perspective: “It’s Christmas, and we’re all in misery.”
There’s something to laugh at every few minutes in this 1989 film, prompted by daft in-laws, hostile neighbors, electrical grid accidents, and the most overcooked turkey in cinematic history. Near-deaf Aunt Bethany (played by 80-year-old actress Mae Questel, who had invented the voices of Olive Oyl and Betty Boop earlier in the 20th century) steals the show. She wraps up her cat as a Christmas present. When asked to say grace, she recites the Pledge of Allegiance.
Mostly, however, things simply go wrong. That extended even to the filming of some of the gags.
The Griswolds are terrified when a squirrel gets into the house. When Snots the dog takes off in pursuit, the room-to-room damage is hard to put into words. Director Jeremiah Chechik hired both a dog trainer and a squirrel trainer (yes, there really are such people). They invested months in preparing the animals for the chase sequence. But on the day the shooting was to begin, the squirrel died. “They don’t live that long,” the trainer admitted to Chechik. When you watch the now-famous scene, that’s an untrained squirrel that was suddenly thrown into the mix. Chechik simply kept the cameras rolling.
I had hoped to attach a link to one of these scenes, but I was unable to find a clip that didn’t include at least one expletive or sophomoric vulgarity – which are, unfortunately, the hallmarks of National Lampoon-style comedy. This time I’ll leave you to do your own digging into the film archives.
Christmas Vacation is the Murphy’s Law of holiday movies. Everything that can wrong in the Griswold household most certainly will go wrong.
What matters for us is how we need to respond to the disasters both great and small that happen in our own worlds.
On a Sunday morning more than a century ago, young Josip Broz was given the honor of serving as altar boy at his Croatian church. Unfortunately, when it came time for Josip to hand the glass cruet of wine to the parish priest who was serving mass, something went wrong.
The vessel slipped from his fingers and shattered on the floor.
It was a dreadful moment, made far worse by the fact that the priest reflexively drew back his hand and slapped Josip across the face. “Don’t ever come back here!” the priest whispered fiercely.
Josip never did go back. Years later he would emerge on the international stage as Marshall Tito, the totalitarian dictator who ruled Yugoslavia for almost three decades.
At almost the same time in another part of the world, a similar drama was being played out. An altar boy at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois, was chosen to present the cruet of wine to the visiting bishop, who happened to be presiding at mass that morning. Once again, almost as if it were happening in slow motion, the vessel somehow slipped through his fingers and shattered on the floor.
Years later, as a grown-up, the boy would reflect on that moment:
“There is no atomic explosion that can equal the intensity of decibels in the noise and explosive force of a wine cruet falling on a marble floor of a cathedral in the presence of a bishop. I was frightened to death.” But things were different this time. The bishop, John Spaulding, looked at the boy with a twinkle in his eye and whispered, “Don’t worry. One day you will be just as I am.”
He was right.
The altar boy would ultimately write fifty books. He would pioneer Christian television programming in the United States. His weekly show was called Life is Worth Living. We know him as Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
Things go wrong all the time. We can’t do much about that. But what happens next matters more than we can know. The very words you choose to speak have life-changing power – the power to crush and the power to heal.
When thrust into the middle of your next disaster – and it will happen, whether at work, or in rush hour traffic, or in the presence of all your relatives on Christmas Day – choose to be a non-anxious presence. Speak carefully. Speak kindly.
Look for an opportunity to turn a crazy event into a redeeming moment.
After all, you never know who might be standing right in front of you.